Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Carrying the Lord's Name in Vain

I don't often agree with Dennis Prager, but I did read with interest and agreement his recent essay about "the greatest sin", which he asserts is "carrying the Lord's name in vain". This is the Third (depending how you count) of the Ten Commandments. Prager provides a novel interpretation of this Commandment, and provides some persuasive scriptural evidence for his case (going back to the original Hebrew, as any good Torah scholar would do). He starts with the observation that this Commandment is commonly understood (or misunderstood) as having to do with swearing, as in "G-d d--m, that's a big SUV!" or similar remarks. He then poses the question why would making a coarse remark rank up in the "Top Ten", along with murder and stealing? And he compounds this conundrum with the scriptural observation that this Commandment is unique among the Ten: it is the only one that G-d says He will not forgive. (Look it up.) How could it possibly make sense, Prager asks, that G-d could forgive a murderer but could not forgive someone who says "My G-d, that was an awful movie"?

The sensible answer that Prager offers is that we are misunderstanding this fundamental Commandment to think it has to do with mere figures of speech. Going back to the original Hebrew, he translates the Commandment as "do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain". Not "take" or "invoke" the name, but carry it, lift it up. Like a flag. Prager's interpretation is that the Commandment proscribes committing evil acts in the name of the Lord. (The New International Version gets pretty close with their translation "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God".) With this interpretation, Prager then points the finger at those who commit acts of terror in the name of religion. He notes that while the Nazis committed murder (violating the Sixth Commandment), Islamist terrorists violate not only the Sixth but the Third (the unforgiveable) Commandment, as they not only kill people but drag G-d's name into it.

His interpretation makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the context of the Bible at large. If you read the Prophets, one of the things they most railed against was religious hypocrisy, people going through pious motions and ostentatiously conforming to the "jots and tittles" of the Law while neglecting its fundamental spirit. Likewise, if you read the Gospels and the Epistles, one of the things that Jesus (and Paul) berated people for was religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees are called out for such hypocrisy so often in the Gospels that their name has become synonymous with it. It thus seems completely convincing that the Third Commandment -- the unforgiveable Commandment -- proscribes not swearing but religious hypocrisy.

No one should dispute that religious terrorism is the nadir of Third Commandment violations, and the lowest ring of Hell is surely reserved for them. But it seems clear to me that the Third Commandment applies not just to atrocities but to general religious hypocrisy. And G-d knows there are plenty of Pharisees running around, as many today as when Christ was on earth, equally involved in politics, but with their insidious influence compounded by modern media. Sadly, it's not hard to think of flagrant Third Commandment violaters among us. Just recently, Pat Robertson made headlines by advocating violation of the Sixth Commandment (recommending the assassination of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), but it was his Third Commandment violation that made it a headline. And who can forget the appalling remarks of Jerry Falwell in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, blaming it on the ACLU, pagans, "abortionists", feminists, gays and lesbians. And surely there's a special place in Hell for the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers, who are now picketing the funerals of soldiers. These so-called Christians do more violence to the reputation of Christianity (and by implication G-d Himself) than any pagan, feminist, or gay man ever could. I can see now how violations of the Third Commandment make even Saints and Prophets explode with anger, and how even G-d might find it impossible to forgive.

Monday, August 29, 2005

FILM: The Notebook

On Saturday night, we had a quiet evening in and watched The Notebook on DVD. We really enjoyed this poignant romance, and I'm glad we watched it at home because I was crying at the end. (Point of calibration: I'm a total softie. I get teary-eyed watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.) Young actors Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams were excellent as two teenagers from very different backgrounds who experience a summer love that profoundly affects their lives. Their charm and chemistry was enchanting. Director Nick Cassavetes did a great job coaching their performances (as could be seen on some of the DVD extras), skillfully infusing their romance with the added magic of beautiful South Carolina landscape, a Norman Rockwell small town, and general Southern charm. The story of the young lovers is actually a story within a story: in the "outer story", an elderly man is reading the story to an elderly woman in a nursing home. As the inner story unfolds with occasional cuts back to the outer story, we get to see how the inner story affects the elderly man and woman (played beautifully by James Garner and Gena Rowlands). At the very beginning, the outer story seemed like an unnecessary device, but as we learn more about the elderly man and woman, and how they got to where they are in their lives, their story is as moving as the inner story. Other good performances included Joan Allen (as the young girl's mother), Sam Shephard (the young boy's father), and James Marsden (a rival love interest). In its passion and its charm, I found The Notebook to be the equal of Titanic. It's too bad it didn't get the same acclaim.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

California Marriage, Here We Come?

California moved closer to becoming the first state to enact same-sex marriage without a court mandate, as the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act, authored by Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-SF), was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, and moves for a full vote of the Senate as early as next week. Senate approval would send it back to the Assembly for concurrence, where Leno hopes to muster the one or two additional votes needed to secure its passage. (It failed in the Assembly by the narrowest of margins, but some procedural wizardry has allowed it to come back by way of the Senate.) I just sent this email to my State Senator, Jack Scott (D-Pasadena):
Dear Senator Scott,

I don't often take the time to write to you on legislation, but AB 849 (Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Protection Act) is very important to me, and also to countless gay men and lesbians throughout the state of California. My husband and I had a wedding ceremony four years ago, and consider ourselves married in every sense but the legal one. We are recognized as a married couple by our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow church members. More and more Californians are coming to realize that discrimination against same-sex couples in marriage law is as wrong as the anti-miscegenation laws of decades past. In fact, a California Superior Court judge has ruled as much, although legal appeals will keep the final outcome tied up for another couple of years. However, I am confident that the California Supreme Court will do the right thing when the time comes, and rule same-sex marriage discrimination as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the California legislature could just wait for the Supreme Court, but it would be much better for the legislature to make a decisive stand for justice on this issue. California was one of the earliest states to legalize inter-racial marriage, and I would be proud to see California take a leading role in legalizing same-sex marriage. The opportunity before you is a historic one, and in voting for AB 849 when it comes before you next week, you should be confident in being on the right side of history. I hope you will give this bill your full support.

Tom Chatt

If you are a Californian, please take a moment to contact your state Senator.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Seizing Justice through Eminent Domain

This week, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider its execrable decision in Kelo vs. New London, the already-infamous case consenting to allow a local government's power of eminent domain to be used to seize private homes in order to hand them over for private development. KipEsquire has been on this case from way back, and was the first to bring it to my attention. This latest development was unsurprising, but what caught my interest in reading about it were some of the creative protests that have sprung up. Apparently, a California libertarian is spearheading an effort to build a new luxury hotel in the small town of Weare, New Hampshire, and has filed paperwork with the town to condemn an old farmhouse as the site of the new hotel. The twist? The farmhouse is the home of Justice David Souter. The proposed Liberty Hotel would include a Just Desserts Cafe. Elsewhere in the "Live Free or Die" state, an effort is underway to condemn the Plainfield NH vacation home of Justice Stephen Breyer. The public use? They want to create a public park dedicated to the US and NH state constitutions. I haven't relished such creative protests since a couple years ago when some quick-thinking protester published the home phone number of the US District Judge Lee West after he struck down the federal do-not-call list. These sort of things make me proud to be an American.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Three Cheers for the Calif Supreme Court

Three cheers for the California Supreme Court, which handed down three separate decisions this week all on the side of responsibility, the best interest of children, and recognition of same-sex couples. In one case, "Elisa B. vs. Emily B.", Elisa and Emily were a lesbian couple who planned to raise children together. Both were artificially inseminated from the same source, so that their children would be biological half-siblings (strengthening the legal basis for keeping the family together should anything happen to one of the parents). Both women gave birth, Elisa to a single child and Emily to twins, one of which has Down's syndrome. They agreed that Elisa would be the breadwinner while Emily would be the stay-at-home mom. The women later separated, and Elisa disavowed any legal claim to support the twins born to Emily. Not so fast, the trial court told Elisa: You actively helped your partner get pregnant, you agreed to raise the children as your own, for years you held them out as your own; that makes you their parent, and that means you're paying child support. An appeals court reversed, but the Supreme Court overruled, reaffirming the trial court's ruling. The Court found that a biological relationship is not required for legal parenthood (particularly where artificial insemination is involved), and that the state has a significant interest in parents supporting their children even after relationships break up.

In another case, "K.M. vs. E.G.", the two women had arranged that one woman's ovum would be artificially inseminated and planted in the other woman to bear their child, so that both women would have some biological relationship to their child. Later when they separated, the birth mother attempted to shut out the egg-donor mother, mostly based on the fact that the egg-donor mother had signed away her legal parental rights as part of the standard egg donation procedures at the fertility clinic that performed the procedure. Not so fast, ruled the Court. This child was conceived by the active intention and participation of both women, and was held out as their child, therefore both women are parents. "We perceive no reason why both parents of a child cannot be women," said the Court.

In the third case, the two women had a written pre-birth agreement to share parental rights and responsibilities, which the biological parent later tried to get out of. The Court noted the strong public policy interest "favoring that a child has two parents rather than one." In each of these cases, the Court built on a body of common law that has been built up in cases regarding unmarried heterosexual parents, and found no reason not to apply the same standards to same-sex couples. These are pro-family decisions in that they defend the best interest of the children, and enjoin parental responsibility. And they underscore not only the reasonableness but the necessity to allow same-sex marriage, in order to better protect same-sex families raising children. (In the meantime, shame on those who would cynically abuse the lack of legal same-sex marriage to try to dodge their parental responsibilities. A deadbeat is a deadbeat, straight or gay.)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

FILM: March of the Penguins

Last night we saw March of the Penguins, a documentary about the Emperor penguin. The film provides an informative documentary about the life of these extraordinary creatures, told in a kind of story form, following their life through the course of a yearlong mating cycle. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is simply amazing, and even inspiring. The film does a great job of presenting the extreme environment they inhabit, and the obstacles the penguins surmount in order to produce and raise their young. The film also has no qualms about humanizing the penguins, which is not difficult given some of their behavior traits. The penguins choose a mate each year, and remain monogamous for that year. Their courtship is cute, and there are some very sweet shots of penguin couples nuzzling. The successful raising of a penguin chick requires an elaborate ritual of great hardship and sacrifice by the parents, as well as the cooperation of the penguin "community", and there are a number of critical points where things can go wrong. It is adorable to see the footage of tiny penguin chicks being born, taking their first steps, and growing up. It is inspirational to see the sacrifice and cooperation of the parents to raise their chick (going to extraordinary lengths to bring it food), and the cooperation of the colony (such as huddling together to survive the worst storms, letting everyone have a turn in the center of the huddle). And it is very moving to see the expressions of anguish when a parent loses its chick to the elements.

It may be inaccurate to attribute emotions to animals, but some of their expressions seem incredibly emotional (and the editing and narration consciously foster an anthropomorphic viewpoint). While it may be unscientific to project human emotions onto animals, I see nothing wrong in anthropomorphizing certain animal behavior where it seems to provide an admirable example of desirable human characteristics, such as family bonding, self-sacrifice, and community cooperation. While animal behavior per se is no basis for human morality, if watching penguins can inspire us to be better humans, I think that's all good. This may suggest that these are good attributes for facing hardship, and (the other side of the same coin) that hardship fosters these attributes.

The film is an unusual moviehouse offering. While I've adored penguins as long as I can remember, George was less enthusiastic about spending a Saturday night seeing a documentary. ("Why go to the theater when we can get that sort of thing staying home and watching the National Geographic channel?") Nonetheless, we'd heard positive reviews from a number of friends who had seen it. I think it may be the humanizing viewpoint that sets this apart from your ordinary documentary, and makes it so appealing. The story-like narration, read by Morgan Freeman, added to that. Not to mention, imagining what the filmmakers had to go through in order to obtain the footage that they did adds to the appreciation of the extraordinary quality of this film. The stars are the penguins themselves, with Mother Nature getting credit for the set design, as many shots showcased the stark beauty of the Antarctic.

The amazing creatures presented in this film may provide interesting fodder for contemplating the evolution versus "intelligent design" debate. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is nothing short of incredible, and the whole cycle is incredibly fragile. That's certainly something one could point to and ask "how could something like that possibly have arisen out of random mutation?" On the other hand, one would certainly wonder how and why an "intelligent designer" would have designed such a precarious and improbable life form, whose hardships seem almost cruel if intentionally designed. The fragility of their life pattern also makes me worry whether and how they will survive global warming. In any event, this film should delight you, might leave you thinking, and may even inspire you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Gluttony of Procreation

I've written previously about how the Pope is waging a global war on relativism, in which the Catholic tradition of proportionality in moral reasoning has become a casualty. In no instance is this more dire than the Catholic church's official position on birth control, a position quietly and broadly ignored by the laiety in first-world countries, but not ignored enough in third-world countries. The church's reckless absolutism in this regard bears a considerable burden of responsibility for overpopulation (and resulting starvation) and the spread of disease. Even within a Catholic moral framework, this insistence on unbounded procreation seems wrong to me. Certainly, procreation is essential to the continuity of life. But so too is eating. Eating is a positive good, as it is essential to sustaining life, but at the same time we can recognize that while a sufficiency of eating is a positive good, an excess of eating becomes the vice of gluttony. Thus, it is virtuous to eat the right amount and no more. This is Thomas Aquinas 101. So why wouldn't the same reasoning lead us to believe that it is virtuous to reproduce the right amount and no more? Unbounded procreation, more than is necessary to sustain life, is likewise a vice, a gluttony of procreation, by the same natural law reasoning. In fact, it ought to be more of a vice, as overpopulation which leads to starvation (or other deprivation) works against life more severely than overeating. By such natural law reasoning, the Pope (the current one, the late one, and going back to Paul VI and Humanae Vitae) is just plain wrong. This can be confirmed by looking at the Bible. It is often cited that G-d commanded Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply". Unfortunately, few people bother to read just a bit further. What He said was "be fruitful and multiply; go and fill the earth and master it." (Genesis 1:28). The very form of the command is bounded, having a stated stopping point: reproduce until the earth is full and subdued. One can certainly argue that present rates of procreation are more than sufficient to fill and subdue the earth, and we may be on our way to overfilling and oversubduing it. How would that not be a vice?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


The Gaza holdouts might look to the Torah reading called Lekh-Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), as they may find it has a lot to say to them this week. Lekh-lekha is Hebrew for "get out you" (more or less), and it begins by G-d telling Abram to leave the homeland he'd lived in for all his 75 years, and to set off to lands unknown, trusting in G-d's promise that he will make of him a great nation. The first lesson here is that sometimes faith requires that you pull up your stakes and leave your home.

The entire reading covers the extensive wanderings and trials of Abram, basically going for 24 more years before G-d finally fulfills his promise of a son to Abraham (as he was renamed) and his wife Sarah. (Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90 when she conceived their first child.) The second lesson is that G-d's promise is eventually kept, but you may have to endure a long period of setbacks and faith in the yet-to-be-fulfilled, and it may not be fulfilled in just the way you expect.

It's also worth noting that this reading tells us of the birth of Ishmael, son of Abram by Sarai's handmaid Hagar. While Abraham's son Isaac is the patriarch of the Jewish people, his other son Ishmael is the patriarch of the Muslim people. While G-d promises to make the children of Isaac His covenant people, He also promises to bless Ishmael, and to make him a great nation. Lesson three is that the Jews and Muslims are cousins and kinsmen. It is timely to remember that.

The reading also relates Abram first coming into the new lands with his brother Lot, and how the land was not enough to support both their flocks, and there was fighting between their herdsmen.
Abram said to Lot: "Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north." -- Genesis 13:8-9
The final lesson is that wisdom sometimes requires a little distance to preserve peace among relatives.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Tisha b'Av

Today is one of the lessser known Jewish holidays, called Tisha b'Av, which is simply the date, the 9th of the month of "Av". This is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and the holiday is marked by fasting and mourning in commemoration of great tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many coincidentally occurring on the same day. (Actually, for particularly observant Jews, there is a 3 week period of mourning, culminating on the 9th of Av.) It's sort of like September 11 or December 7 for Americans, or October Black Monday for stock investors, but as if the Twin Towers, Pearl Harbor, the stock market crash, and several other and bigger tragedies had all occurred on the same date. That's Tisha b'Av.

If you've ever read the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, you'll recall that it's a long account of G-d smiting the enemies of the Jews, alternating with G-d allowing the enemies to smite the Jews when they grow complacent, hypocritical, and forget about G-d. When the Jews were first given the land of Israel, they built a great Temple according to G-d's instructions. In 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Israel and dragged the Jews off into a long captivity, the 9th of Av was the day that the Temple was destroyed. Eventually, when the Persians sacked the Babylonians, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel, and the Temple was rebuilt. Much later, in 70 CE, when the Jews attempted to rebel against Roman occupation, the Romans destroyed the second Temple. This also happened on the 9th of Av. (The famous "wailing wall" in Jerusalem is a remnant of the destroyed Temple.) In 135 CE, again on the 9th of Av, the Romans vanquished the last outpost of Jewish rebels, and Jews were scattered around the world. One of the better places for Jews to end up, at least for many centuries, was Spain, which under Moorish influence had a relatively tolerant coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But eventually there arose the Spanish Inquisition, and by royal edict all Jews (and Muslims) were expelled from Spain, with the last Jew to be off of Spanish soil by a certain date in 1492. Yup, 9th of Av once again. (As Tevye may have said, only the Chosen People get to be so blessed.)

This year, Tisha b'Av will be fraught with extra significance because as soon as the holiday ends, the Israeli government is scheduled to begin the controversial evacuation of the Gaza (and a few West Bank) settlements. While this move is apparently supported by the majority of Israeli citizens, as well as majority of US Jews, it is a highly divisive and emotional issue, and those who oppose it do so vehemently. It is inherent that the settlers who inhabited these outpost settlements were courageous, determined, and motivated by either a political patriotic form of Zionism or a religiously-motivated Zionism. For the political Zionists, I hope that just as they moved to the settlements in the first place for the good of the state of Israel, they can now voluntarily pull up their stakes and move, also for the good of the state of Israel. And in fact, some of them have, although political opinions differ as to whether the pull-out is indeed in the best interests of the state. For the religious Zionists, there seems no room for compromise. They are there because the Torah tells them that G-d gave all of the land of Israel to the Jews. As some have said, if we pack up and quit Gush Katif (one of the orthodox Gaza settlements), why not pack up and quit Jerusalem, Haifa, and the rest of Israel as well? Alas, it's hard to imagine how to reconcile that kind of attitude with any practical path toward peace or even security for Israel (short of counting on G-d to smite all of Israel's enemies, which doesn't appear to be His present intention). Thus, for some the Gaza evacuations will be seen as yet another catastrophe to fall on Tisha b'Av, while for others it will be accepted as part of Israel's trying to make its way forward given the realities of the world.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

FILM: Happy Endings

You can't often get the happy endings that you'd like; you have to live life with the endings that you end up with. And those endings might just turn out to be happy in ways you never could have foreseen. That may be the message of Don Roos' recent film Happy Endings, a very original story that follows the lives of eight or ten characters as they intersect in highly unpredictable ways. The film opens with a woman running as fast as she can down a side street, and then suddenly getting hit by a car (though a text caption immediately reassures us that she'll be okay). The rest of the film is no more predictable than that, as we meet an intriguing cast of characters: a step-brother and step-sister who have a brief romantic liaison, a film-maker wannabe who performs blackmail at gunpoint in order to help get himself into film school, a masseur with a few secrets, a gay couple and their lesbian friends whose child one of the men may have fathered unknowingly, and a closeted gay drummer in a rock band who sleeps with a girl who then dumps him for his father. Like Roos' 1998 film, The Opposite of Sex, the story is unlike anything you've seen before, and following its twists and turns keeps you hooked wondering where it will go next. In getting the large number of primary characters quickly introduced, Roos uses the gimmick of text captions that cut in on the side. These aren't regular subtitles, but more like silent movie captions, except that they're done in split-screen alongside the image. It's a bit visually distracting at times, but the sardonic tone of the captions helps set the film's attitude. This film is closer to real life than most in that all of its characters are partly functional and partly dysfunctional, all flawed but all human. Roos has put together a great ensemble cast, successfully putting a number of known actors outside their usual "types". Lisa Kudrow (who was also in The Opposite of Sex) is spot-on as a Mamie, who has some funny lines but is a hardened character with solid dramatic moments. Tom Arnold is excellent in playing a character that is neither funny nor loud, as he sensitively portrays a man quietly recovering his life after his wife's death. Bobby Cannavale plays a Mexican immigrant (with no trace of his heavy New York accent from Will and Grace), while Jesse Bradford plays a ruthless reprobate with artful aspirations. British comic actor Steve Coogan is also spendid in a dramatic role here. And relative newcomer Jason Ritter does a great job playing the clueless closeted rock-band drummer. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a bad girl who sometimes has a heart, and she keeps it all very real. The film has just enough witty lines and cleverly wrought situations to keep it from being too serious, but there's a lot of great dramatic character interplay, and this film just might get you thinking about adoption versus abortion. But if so, that just happens along the romping ride.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Mascot Madness

Usually when the word "madness" is used in the same sentence with NCAA, people are talking about the popular basketball tournement held every March. But last week, the term was widely connected with the very unpopular NCAA ruling about Indian mascots. It is certainly true that some sports mascots are offensive, and represent embarrassing racist stereotypes well left behind, and certainly many of the more egregious ones have concerned Native Americans (such as Redskins or Savages). But in overreaching to kowtow to political correctness, the NCAA has set itself up for ridicule. Isn't it possible that some nicknames might actually respectfully honor Native American tribes? Florida State University, for one, is right to defend their use of the Seminoles nickname and Chief Osceola as their mascot. After all, even the Seminole tribe approves the FSU Seminoles, so who is the NCAA defending? A number of commentators wondered whether the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might be next in the line of identity politics casualties, since that fierce little leprechaun might be deemed pretty offensive to those of Irish descent. One speculated that by the time political correctness was done, we'd have only animal or vegetable mascots. Even that's not entirely safe ground. Just ask the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, who are being objected to by PETA. This issue has been around for a while, and many schools and professional sports organizations, to their credit, have voluntarily cleaned up their act where needed. Some holdouts may linger, such as the Cleveland Indians, who are pushing the story that their team was renamed to the Indians in 1915 to honor Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot tribesman who played for Cleveland (then the Spiders) in 1897-99, and was the first native American pro ball player. (The story is likely a bit of revisionist history, and their mascot, Chief Wahoo, is a cartoonish charicature with little respect to any real native American traditions.) And there are other groups who may rightly be offended by school nicknames (like, um, the Ole Miss Rebels). If I were a native American, I might be a bit put off by the name of San Diego's pro ball club, the Padres. As any child who grew up in California well knows, the padres, lead by Fr. Junipero Serra, were instrumental in settling California for Spain, and establishing a network of missions up and down the state. But from a native American point of view, the padres surely rank alongside Andrew Jackson as being practically genocidal. (Hmm, I wonder if there are any schools nicknamed "Old Hickories", for that matter.) Meanwhile, down the road at San Diego State, their Aztecs nickname escaped the NCAA ban once the organization realized that there were no Aztecs alive to be offended. I'm not sure why the same argument doesn't work for the Illinois Illini, who only live on in the name of the state and the state university's mascot. Sensible distinctions need to be made between respectable ethnic team identities and the offensive ones. I hope to see the Seminoles and the Illini at next year's March Madness.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

FILM: Troy

On a business trip the other week, I finally got a chance to catch Troy, the 2004 epic featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Though the ancient Greek poet Homer is given a co-writer credit, we had heard from advance buzz about the film that screenwriter David Benioff would be taking some liberties in adapting the Iliad to the big screen. In particular, we'd heard that Patroklos (who was Achilles' beloved in the original) would be his "cousin" in the movie, while a romantic line was added between Achilles and Briseus (who in the original was one of two captured trophy maidens, more a conquest than a love interest). Some changes were inevitable in the adaptation, for instance, in the Iliad, the Trojan War lasts nearly a decade, while in the movie it seems to last maybe a few weeks. And there were quite a number of changes made for the sake of the story (the IMDB page has a pretty good list). All of that notwithstanding, I think that the film turned out to be a great story and thematically quite faithful to the original, even while liberally rearranging the specifics. One of Homer's great themes is the contrast between the glory and horror of the war (two sides of the same coin) versus home and family life. The film sets this theme up in the beginning, with a beautiful invented scene between Achilles and his mother the sea nymph Thetis, in which she foretells two possible futures for him -- one going to Troy, dying young and achieving eternal fame, the other staying home and enjoying children and grandchildren over a long life. (Julie Christie is marvelous as Thetis.) Later in the film, there are some family scenes with the Trojan hero Hector with his wife and young baby, torn between wanting to stay with his family versus his duty to go and fight the war in which he's likely to get killed. (Eric Bana gives just the right balance of noble warrior and tender husband and father.) The sentiment is very true to Homer. One scene that was particularly true to Homer, both in theme and detail, was when King Priam sneaks into Achilles' tent to beg for the return of his slain son's body. (Peter O'Toole is brilliant as Priam, and particularly shines in this scene.)

Director Wolfgang Peterson has done a good job of crafting this film as an epic. The scenes of the walled city of Troy, the masses of Greek ships at sea, and the battles were well worthy of big-screen viewing. And the adaptation does well in capturing the sense of great heroes waging the battle amidst the thousands of troops, and the classic sense of honor among them. Amidst the epic, he skilfully develops a number of characters. The romantic tension between Achilles and Briseis is a nice invention, with each coming to love and admire the other's strength of character. Achilles is rightly portrayed as both noble (as we see not only with his treatment of his captive Briseis, but also his concern for his "cousin" and for his men) and also egoistic, a bit of a pouty prima donna. Agamemnon is painted as political and power-craving, and the dynamic between the two is nicely done. Brad Pitt does an outstanding job portraying the moody hero, and the film does not disappoint those who would go just to get a good look at this gorgeous actor in action. (He has seriously worked out for this role, and it shows.) Orlando Bloom plays a naturally impetuous Paris who struggles to become responsible in the end. All in all, some great performances, a visual feast, a good solid story with engaging characters, and a memorable adaptation of a classic work.

Monday, August 08, 2005

BOOKS: Special Love / Special Sex

Once again family history has lead me to learn about an interesting pocket of American history. This weekend, I read Special Love / Special Sex: An Oneida Community Diary, edited by Robert S. Fogarty. I had heard of the Oneida Community, mostly because I knew that my grandma grew up there, but I didn't really know a lot about it. This book is actually the publication of the diary of Victor Hawley (my grandma's grandfather), interleaved with extensive explanatory and interpretive material from Fogarty, a history prof at Antioch College specializing in American utopianism and communitarianism. It seems that while the Oneida Community had been studied, there was a dearth of "inside" primary sources until this diary came to light in the 1980s. This book is thus of scholarly interest, but also makes an interesting read for the layman. As Fogarty explains in the intro, the diary tells the story of a man and a woman in love despite their family opposing the union. While the story of star-crossed lovers has been told in many ways, what makes this one unique is its setting in the Oneida Community of the 1870s, and its relationship to currents and transformations within the Community. Fogarty does a good job of explaining the context, and his material is interleaved with the actual diary entries over two years, published completely but broken up into four sections based on turning points in the story. The diary entries are telegraphic, with the most passionate thoughts and dreams interspersed with mundane details of work, sleep, chores and hobbies. At the times when Victor is separated from Mary (his love), he is reminded of her in all sorts of places and his entries are plaintively moving:
I walked down to the middle of the swamp after meeting. When shall I walk with you again. Oh that you were here or I were there if only for an hour. Would to God that you were with me forever.
The love story is sweet, but even more fascinating is the window into the life of a community practicing (and for a good while succeeding) what their founder, John H. Noyes, termed "Bible communism". Growing out of the American "religious awakening" of the 1830s and 1840s, Noyes was part of a movement called Perfectionism, a peculiar spin on Christianity that strove to live lives as sin-free as possible, and sought to create the "new Jerusalem" on earth (in this particular instance, on a farm in central New York state). Noyes' vision included a thorough-going communism in which everyone lived and worked for the good of the community. The community was conceived as one large family to such an extent that they considered all adult members as participating in one "complex marriage". While Puritanism informed the Oneida work ethic, Noyes had completely novel ideas about sex. A strong distinction was made between "progenitive" sex and "amative" sex, with the latter being performed using a technique in which the Oneida men trained themselves to be satisfied with a sexual interaction stopping short of the natural climax. While progenitive sex was planned and limited, "amative" sex was encouraged among the community members as a form of interpersonal community-building, with a variety of partners being preferable. Though it sounds at first like 1960s "free love", it really wasn't that kind of orgy. Though the acts themselves were done in private, these "communications" (as they were euphemistically called) were all negotiated in public light and through third parties, and seemed for the most part to effectively support the communitarian spirit. Getting too attached to any one person, however, was discouraged, as that was seen as selfish and working against the communitarian spirit. (And it was there that Victor and Mary ran afoul.) Similarly, children (the product of selectively planned progenitive "communications") belonged to the community family and were raised communally.

Though the community eventually collapsed in the end of the 1870s for a variety of reasons including a leadership crisis when the founder's less charismatic son tried to assert some new and different philosophy, it did thrive for some three decades, growing from 50 people in 1848 to over 200 in 1868. During that time, the community became economically quite successful, and there are some interesting observations to be made in that regard. One of the ingredients to their success was the ethic for continuous improvement, a spiritual goal that seemed to spill over into their practical life as well. The practice of arts, crafts, and ongoing education were encouraged, with individuals encouraged to seek out their particular interests and aptitudes. The communitarian principle was that individualistic self-improvement and self-fulfillment would naturally align with making the community stronger and better. This was also combined with a philosophy of maximum flexibility in work roles, which included the rotation of everyone through various jobs and duties, and occasional widescale redeployment on large tasks. For example, when a harvest was to be brought in, everyone might take a day off from their current positions and the whole colony would tackle the harvest, getting it done much more quickly and effectively. Hard work was made social and fun wherever possible. I think a modern economist would admire the "labor liquidity" embodied in their approach of highly fluid redeployment of workers as needed, combined with continual skill development. (History has shown that the communist central planning model fails badly at the national level, but I think with the right ethic some communal principles can be quite effective in small to medium-sized organizations, as Oneida proves a good example.)

When Victor Hawley's diary was recorded (1876-77), the community was starting to suffer tensions due in part to the introduction of new philosophical ideas. The founder's son Theodore Noyes was fascinated by eugenics and brought the notion (termed "stirpiculture") to Oneida, in which a committee of elders started to dictate who could make babies with whom. The elder Noyes, through philosophical conviction and personal charisma, had been able to maintain a happy balance that evaded his son, and some of his ideas brought the Orwellian tensions to the surface, with Victor Hawley and Mary Jones playing the role of Winston and Julia (108 years early). The book not only tells a nice love story, but its socio-historical context provides an intriguing foil for currently relevant issues such as the purpose of sex and marriage, and the struggle to resolve the personal versus the communal.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Day at the Beach

One of the great things about California is that it has a beautiful coastline, and one that is zealously protected for the enjoyment of all. Some of our beaches are easier to get to than others, but some of the hard-to-get-to beaches are worth the effort. My husband and I don't get to the beach nearly as often as we should, but today was a hot summer day, and we found ourselves with no plans as George had been scheduled to work but got a reprieve, so we packed a picnic lunch and set out to visit the beach at Point Dume. It's one of George's old favorites, and one I'd never been to, so I was eager to check it out. The beach lies at the foot of a steep cliff, and access requires hiking a trail along the clifftop and then descending a long steep flight of steps. Not only that, but the Malibu mansion owners at the top of the cliff do their utmost to discourage beachgoers, so there are few legal parking spots within a mile or two of the trailhead. At the foot of the steps is a rocky area, but after hiking through that, there's a nice long stretch of sandy beach. The cliffs are a fascinating geological study, with exposed striations of sedimentary rock in layers of various color, and the mostly horizontal patterns occasionally disrupted by sharp bends. Not far offshore we could see kelp beds, and the variety of shells on the beach suggested marine life was thriving there. We also saw several people snorkeling, so there were probably interesting things to be seen in the reefs. We walked to the far end of the beach before setting up our chairs, where we enjoyed a nice picnic of chicken and gazpacho, followed by a lazy afternoon of reading, walking, and just relaxing. Given the remoteness of the spot, we saw probably only a few dozen people the whole day, and by the end of the afternoon we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. Not bad for a 45-minute drive from downtown LA!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

How Do You Measure A Life?

In the Broadway musical Rent, the theme song "Seasons of Love" poses the question "how do you measure a life?" After this past week, spending time with the Karmelich family, helping prepare for the funeral, and attending the funeral yesterday, it's certainly a question that has been going through my mind. Nothing like a funeral to give you a dose of perspective.

Ben Karmelich had some definite ideas about how to measure a life. He firmly believed in the value of a good education. The first in his family to go to college, he graduated from UC Berkeley and took graduate courses at USC. Years later, in his 60's, he spent part of a summer taking classes at Oxford, just for the pleasure of broadening his education.

He also believed in working hard and becoming successful. The child of a Croatian immigrant fisherman who died when Ben was 18, he worked his own way through college while helping to support his mother and younger siblings. After college, he worked in banks, working his way up to branch manager. In 1968, he started his own bank with 3 employees, and when he retired in 1993, his bank had 11 branches, 200 employees, and 25 consecutive years of profit and growth.

Most importantly, he believed in family. His family was his greatest joy, and his idea of success was to be happily married, to have children, and to raise his children to be well-educated, successful, happily married, and have children of their own. Ben enjoyed 47 years of happy marriage. Through his loving support and inspirational example, all of his four sons are very successful in their careers, and Ben lived to know six grandchildren from three of his sons. And just days before he died, Ben learned that his son Mark and Mark's wife Heather were expecting their first child. At the funeral, there were collages of photos from Ben's life, and especially in the ones from his sons' weddings, you could just see him beaming. I can only imagine how filled with joy he was at Mark and Heather's news.

One might also measure a life by how many people come to your funeral. Ben was kind, generous, and warm-hearted, and he touched the lives of many people, through his good treatment of his employees and customers, through his involvement in a litany of community organizations, and through his genuine interest in the lives of his extended family and many friends. Yesterday at the funeral, there were nearly 400 people to attest to the esteem in which he was held, including some who traveled great distances just to be there.

I'd say with some confidence that Ben Karmelich knew how to measure a life, and he was blessed to live his life to his fullest measures. He was not only blessed, but he was a blessing to those who knew him. His clear values, his example of living out his values, and his great joy in living such a life are an inspiration worth striving for.